'Fast-track' court cases will save £16m a year

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The Independent Online

The government announced plans yesterday to speed up the criminal justice system by reducing the number of court appearances defendants have to make.

The government announced plans yesterday to speed up the criminal justice system by reducing the number of court appearances defendants have to make.

People who might have attended five hearings at magistrates' court before being seen by a judge will now have to attend the lower court only once.

The change, which applies only to criminal charges so serious they must be dealt with by a Crown Court, will cut a month off the time taken to deal with a case.

The Home Office minister Charles Clarke said the changes start next January. "This will enable magistrates' courts to have more time to deal with their other cases and the Crown Courts to focus on delivering swifter punishment to the guilt and justice to the innocent," he said.

Mr Clarke gave the example of grievous bodily harm with intent, which can be dealt with only at Crown Court. In the past, the defendant would have made an average 4.6 appearances before magistrates for remands and committal. Under the new scheme, he would attend one hearing by magistrates, although there will be an additional preliminary hearing in Crown Court.

The minister said that research on the plans, by Ernst & Young, had shown judges, magistrates, barristers and prosecutors were supportive. He said defence lawyers were "neutral".

The chief concern was that the speeded process might increase the risk of defendants being "rushed" into making a guilty plea, for which they get a one-third sentence discount.

Pilot projects in six areas last year showed the changes cut the time between charging a defendant to completion of the case from 228 days to 194. The changes are also expected to save the English criminal justice system £15.7m a year.